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Tarset Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Tarsett; Tyrsete; Tersetthaull

In the civil parish of Tarset.
In the historic county of Northumberland.
Modern Authority of Northumberland.
1974 county of Northumberland.
Medieval County of Northumberland.

OS Map Grid Reference: NY78838548
Latitude 55.16318° Longitude -2.33365°

Tarset Castle has been described as a probable Timber Castle, and also as a certain Tower House.

There are masonry footings remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 2* listed building protected by law*.

Description

Tarset fortified house survives reasonably well and is a rare survival of this form of medieval settlement in Northumberland. It is well documented and will add to our knowledge and understanding of the wide variety of medieval fortified structures.
The monument includes the remains of the fortified residence known as Tarset Castle, situated upon a steep sided promontory commanding the valley of the Tarset Burn to the north and the North Tyne to the west, south and east. The promontory is surrounded by a substantial artificially dug ditch on the east and south sides 20m wide and on average 5m deep. The remaining two sides are bounded by steep banks which have the appearance of having been artificially scarped for added defence. The fortified house occupies the eastern half of the promontory, and is largely visible as the grassed over remains of a rectangular structure, oriented north to south. Standing masonry is visible to a maximum height of 1.5m at the north east and the south east corners of the structure standing upon the uncovered remains of a stone plinth. This masonry is thought to represent two of the four square corner turrets known to exist at Tarset Castle. The fortified house has a long documented history: John Comyn was given licence to crenellate his residence here with a stone wall and a ditch in 1267, the earliest surviving licence to do so in Northumberland. It was clearly a site of some importance, situated as it is above the North Tyne and the Tarset fords and hence also commanding traffic on two old routeways. In 1523 the fortified house was occupied by Sir Ralph Fenwick and 80 men but was taken and burnt in 1525. A sketch of the house in 1773 shows it to be a long narrow rectangular building with square turrets at each of the four corners surrounded by a stone wall of the same shape; this is thought to be the wall for which licence was given in 1267. The monument was partly explored by excavation in 1888 but no records of the findings were left. It is thought that there is a timber palisade on the inner edge of the ditch and that there must have been a bridge across the ditch to give access to the house. (Scheduling Report)

Ruined castle. 1267 for John Comyn. Rubble core with occasional fragments of ashlar.
A mound with extensive lower portions of walls and much more grassed over. One short stretch of well-cut double-chamfered plinth. (Listed Building Report)

Tarset or Tyrset Castle, or "Hall" as it was more commonly called, may be almost certainly identified with the camera which John Comyn obtained leave to fortify with a stone wall and ditch in 1267.
The castle disappears from history until 1523 when it was occupied by Sir Ralph Fenwick with eighty men. In 1525 it was taken and burnt by an alliance of Scots and Tynedale men. It was never restored and its ruins served as a quarry. The site was of strategic importance and commanded the Tyne and Tarset fords and the junction of two old traffic routes. A plan of the ruins made in 1773 show that John Comyn's Camera was a long narrow building with a small rectangular turret at each corner. The wall built in 1267 extended all round the 'Camera' and was broken round the outline of the corner turrets. The ditch, intact except where cut by the railway, enclosed two sides of an area about 250 feet square. The remaining two sides were bounded by a steep bank rising from the Tarset water on the north, and a less steep slope, in part apparently artificially scarped, facing westwards. The stone castle, oriented N-S, stood on the east side of the enclosure. There is no evidence of any wall or defence on the inner side of the ditch although there was possibly a timber palisade. There must also have been at some point a trestle bridge or gangway.
Excavations were made in 1888 by Mr W L S Charlton but no plan was made (Dodds 1940).
Licence to crenellate his camera at 'Tyrset' (Tarset) was granted to John Comyn on 5 December 1267 by Henry III at Westminster. This is the first licence to crenellate in Northumberland which has been preserved. Leland, writing c 1538, mentions the ruins of 'Tarset Castelle'. A survey of 1541 refers to a tower called 'Tarsett Hall' as being burnt 16 years since (1525) (Bates 1891).
A bronze key was found during the excavations of 1888 by Mr W L Charlton (PSANuT 1905-6).
The remains of the castle are situated upon a steep-sided promontory which points westwards and which commands the valley of the Tarset Burn to the north, and the valley of the River North Tyne to the west, south and east. The promontory is cut off from the rising ground to the east by a broad deep ditch, 22.0m wide, and of an average depth of 5.0m. The southern end of this ditch has been destroyed by the construction of a railway cutting.
Upon the east side of the site, are foundations of a building, of which the south end and NE corner are exposed, and stand to a maximum height of 1.5m. The rest of the site has been subjected to ravaging for stone and is covered with pits and spoil heaps, now turf covered. (First Ordnance Survey Archaeology Field Investigator 04/07/1956).
NY 7884 8547. Tarset Castle was surveyed in May 1999 by English Heritage field investigators as part of the National SAMs Survey Pilot Project. The remains of the castle stand upon a motte which has been formed by cutting deep ditches to isolate a promontary above the Tarset Burn, the spoil form the ditches having been used to augment the natural feature. The northern side of the motte is defined by a steep river-cliff which is being actively eroded by a meander in the river. The ditches, to east and south are well preserved, although a trackway interrupts the inner and outer scarps of the ditch to the south-east.
The only identifiable remains of the castle are remnants of the north-east and south-east angle towers, the former displaying a double-chamfered plinth, the latter surviving as the turf-covered rubble core of the wall, up to 1.2m high. The eastern two-thirds of the surface of the motte are covered by turf-covered heaps of rubble, the debris of extensive stone-robbing. At least four small excavation trenches are visible in the vicinity of the castle, all approximately 0.6m wide, which are probably from the excavations of 1888 (Amy Lax/30-MAY-1999/RCHME: National SAMs Survey Pilot Project). (PastScape)

A Royal licence to crenellate was granted in 1267 Dec 5 (Click on the date for details of this licence.).

Comments

The castle was probably built on the site of a timber precursor house of John Comyn's and is certainly built upon a much modified natural mound. The mound is flat topped and delimited by a ditch on all sides except the west (the north side has been later eroded by the Tarset Burn) but the effect is more that of a square 'moat' than the classic round conical hill of the Norman motte. The strategic value of this site, at a crossing of the Tarset Burn, is obvious but the siting may have more to do with being at the centre of the most valuable land (the flat meadow of the River North Tyne) in this otherwise fairly marginal agricultural area.
Links to archaeological and architectural databases, mapping and other online resources

Data >
PastScape   County HER   Scheduling   Listing   I. O. E.
Maps >
Streetmap   NLS maps   Where's the path   Old-Maps      
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Sources of information, references and further reading
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This record last updated 02/02/2017 13:45:43

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